Soaking it all up in Mauritius

If there’s one thing that defines my week in Mauritius, it’s rain.

That’s not to say it rained all the time, or even very much at all, by my British standards of precipitation. Perhaps not more than an hour a day, at most two.

It was just the timing of my Mauritius rain which was of note – oh, and the intensity. It just so happened that every time something genuinely interesting happened, the skies opened. A lot.

Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is indeed a certain romance to be found in rainfall, as any Hollywood scribe would attest.

I suppose my spider sense should have been sent tingling when we hit our first storm, not 10km outside of the airport, from the comfort of a taxi.

A second downpour within my first hour in the country, and I really should have developed a hunch something might be up.

But no, it wasn’t until I found myself shivering and soaked to the bone, in the middle of (well, ish) the Indian Ocean, that I finally accepted this rain stuff may in fact be worth remarking upon.

 

It all started with the seakart.

Some years back, jet skis were banned in Mauritius. So smart entrepreneurs came up with a new mode of recreational transportation reportedly unique to the island. In essence, a cross between a jet ski and a baby hover craft, these 2.8 metre-long, turbine propelled, 100-horse power beauties are built to zoom over the waves like a dodgem on water.

Now, my trip. Mauritius might be best known as a holiday spot for honeymooners, but I was here with just another guy for company. It was the week before my 30th birthday, and while we won’t call it a lads’s getaway, there was a certain element of while-the-cat’s-away to the activities on our itinerary. Thus, the seakart.

A two-man machine, a coin toss decided he would take the driver’s seat. When I was smugly told he “too much liked” riding jet skis, I perhaps should have protested.

For the first 20 minutes or so, I was terrified. Part of a convoy of four, my mad companion used every opportunity to whizz off from the group, zig-zag over the water and generally cause as much turbulence as possible.

“Maybe I should work in the navy,” laughed my companion, as we appeared to drive straight through a wave.

“Maybe you should work in asylum,” I screamed back, “because you drive like a lunatic.” My dad joke was the most suitable form of machismo I could grasp to hide the genuine fear I felt for my life.

And then, as we pulled up for a breather, it started to rain. Already soaked through, the suddenly ridiculous arrival of a rain shower made me shake with fits of laughter. My anxiety suddenly washed all away.

If my companion used the ever-growing storm as an excuse for even greater levels of recklessness, then I was spurning him on, cackling like a schoolboy as we defied the instructor’s commands, and screaming like a schoolgirl as we leapt over the waves.

The rain, it could be said, saved me from my own inhibitions.

MAURITIUS-1
Originally published in The National, February 2015

The following evening we went to a concert. Not just any concert, but the biggest event of the annual, weeklong Festival International Kreol.

One of the most inspiring things about a visit to Mauritius is its clear and proud multiculturalism. Originally an uninhabited island, long periods of Dutch, French and British colonial rule (in that order) means the country which became independent Mauritius in 1968 is made up from the descendants of slaves and labourers brought to the island in centuries past.

Of this melting pot, a 68 percent majority are Indo-Mauritians of Indian descent while, alongside smaller Hakka and Cantonese ethnic groups, Creoles of African descent make up around a quarter of the population.

Now in it’s ninth year, the Festival Kreol celebrates the music, dance, performance, poetry and art of this African diaspora. And the biggest event by far was the Gran Konser, an epic outdoor Saturday  concert which kicked off at 7pm, starring more than 30 acts playing for 12 hours, right through the night until 7am the following morning.

The music was incredible, a quixotic blend of times, places and rhythms. Dancehall and calypso sounds blurred with the island’s traditional sega melodies and beats. Western rap-phrasing, plus modern rock and electronic elements lent the music a contemporary edge, yet the whole thing felt caked caked in a timelessly soulful, New Orleans jug-band euphoria. A music writer’s paradise.

And then, at around 10pm, it began to rain.

But that was never going to dim spirits in this crowd. The ever-growing mass of Mauritian adolescents stood from picnic rugs and whipped out colourful umbrellas. As the storm intensified the music appeared to grow louder, deeper, and by the time of the midnight headliner, the field was a sloppy mess of mud and writhing, happy human bodies.

 

The next day we were back on the waves, but the plan was something more subdued. We took a short boat ride out to Île aux Cerfs, a pleasant, if forgettable private island of pristine beaches which offer a weekend escape to both holiday-makers and Mauritians alike. From here, a longer speedboat ride took us up the Grand Rivière Sud Est to a dramatic waterfall, which can be easily climbed in a few minutes for some fantastic photo ops. As I descended the rock-side, I felt the distinct splatter of water. By the third time, I knew what to expect.

I honestly do not think I’ve been so wet in my life. Of course, I take a shower every day – but this was a different kind of wet. Namely a cold, bracing and windy wet, of the kind which can only come with traveling through a torrential thunderstorm in an open air speedboat. Our pack of a dozen or so passengers huddled together, complete strangers groping together for warmth and relief against the battling wind and rain. Electronic devices were discarded to the elements.

The rain continued all afternoon. Stopping 30 minutes later at the next island, we took shelter under a roof of corrugated iron, a makeshift family restaurant where we clawed on tasty, seasoned barbecued fish and chicken. As the only manmade structures on the island, apparently known to it’s owners as Il aux Manginie, the business has no name. It was started by Jonathan Dardenne 15 years ago, after a French tourist gave the now-35-year-old father a boat to help him take tourists around the islands. Today he works the kitchen alongside wife Vanessa. Her father Geoffrey, 61, joined as a makeshift barman five years ago, after 42 years work in a sugarcane factory. Granddaughter Tatiana, 18, waits the tables on school holidays. Despite the growing rain and mounting chill, hearing this tale warmed the heart right through.

 

The next day I went to “walk with the lions”, one of a number of exotic animal encounters on my trip which also included petting giant turtles (at the family favourite La Vanille Reserve des Mascareignes, commonly known as the Crocodile Park) and swimming with dolphins (arranged by charter from the Rivière Noire District district). Like the Nile crocs, the lions were never indigenous to the island, and the experience felt more like an extended photo op than a wild safari. Still, the Casela Nature Park did offer me one more unmitigated delight – quad bikes.

Now I’ve ridden these brutes before, in the desert outside Dubai, but those soft dunes offer nothing like the excitement, or the challenge, of a rugged forest terrain. A recent dune buggy accident (let’s just say I flipped it over) fresh in the memory bank, I began diligently, a Sunday driver viewing the hills, streams and rocks as obstacles, splattering mud to be avoided. And then – yes – it started to rain. And I mean really rain.

The rocks we bounded became puddles, the grassy surfaces water-soaked skid tracks, and the rivers, knee-deep gorges to gun through at speed.

Suddenly, nothing mattered. I soon realised I could no longer treat my ride as a conventional vehicle, a device to move between one point and another, but instead as a wild beast to be tamed. In little more than an hour on the bike I felt a kaleidoscope of human emotions – adrenalin, embarrassment, bliss, terror and pride. It was survival – me against the elements, soaked and psyched, spinning the wheel manically, wilder than the animals I’d encountered just an hour earlier.

 

If I used a looming personal milestone as an excuse to search for a Mauritius beyond the honeymooners, it’s safe to say I found it. But there’s one more rain story to add. A logistical mix-up meant we were booked on an earlier flight than understood, a fact that only became apparent 100 minutes before takeoff. Leaving in a frantic haze, halfway through the hour-long taxi journey we hit a blinding storm, slowing us to a virtual stop at points.

When we reached the airport, we were told we’d missed the emergency check in cut-off by just a few minutes.

But still, I’ll take the storms, missed flights and all. Without the rain, it just wouldn’t have been the same trip.

 

 

 

 

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